Finally, something to really rally against in Abbott’s Australia
“First they came for the independent filmmakers. But I said nothing, because I was a ballerina …” — Martin Niemoller (adapted)
Watching the reaction to the Abbott government’s first budget, one is tempted to coin the headline: “Right-wing government in right-wing budget shock!”. That’s particularly so when you see the reaction, largely scrolling down through Twitter, of the class of 1972, whose sense of horror seems to be unleavened by any notion of politics.
For many, it seems to be an event outside of politics, inexplicable, cruel and arbitrary. That is to be expected, I guess. The budget marks the first decisive break with nearly a half-century of economic social-democratic liberalism — a long period in which all federal governments cut with the grain of social progressivism, changing little that had been established before them.
Malcolm Fraser may have abolished Medibank, but he left free higher education and a broad welfare safety net in place. The Howard-Costello budgets of the 1990s may have taken a razor to the cash value of specific programs, but they essentially left a Scandinavian-lite framework in place (as I noted in 2001 in my Quarterly Essay on Howard, “The Opportunist”, just in case anyone wants to suggest post-hoc wisdom). Where Howard decisively broke with a social liberal tradition was in relation to refugees and indigenous people — “the others”, within and without. In that sense, the Howard government was more like a pre-Whitlam Labor government than anything else, “McKellite” in Mark Latham’s handy phrase — until the debacle of WorkChoices, which rather proves the point.
By the time Howard left office, an Australian could still rock up to a clinic and get free healthcare, go to university for a less-than-crushing debt rack-up, take paid vacations, stress leave, apply for arts grants, and stay on the dole and pull cones in perpetuity, save for filling in a dole diary, and having the occasional appointment with a clinical psychologist who was even less employable than you were. The classical liberals tore their hair out about this, and about the way in which Howard was getting credit/blame for being some sort of liberal ogre.
Well, now they have a government and a budget they can like a bit more. But not much. For the weird thing about this budget is that it seems punitive to no great purpose. Howard and Costello did a lot of their cutting in the background — either programs which were amorphous but vital (such as R&D) or hidden from most but vital (such as indigenous health), while leaving the front end alone. This budget appears to go out of its way to hurt and affront people, without using the money to make any significant dent in the debt. Its significant frontline savings features seem designed to shape politically engaged sub-classes where none existed before.
Take the Medicare co-payment for a start. Most of us already pay something upfront for a GP visit because we don’t go to a bulk biller — and less than 100% of that co-pay is refunded. Bulk billing was designed to keep universality of healthcare intact — so that even the wastrel who had put the dole check on the first at Randwick could get an examination if they felt a twinge that turned out to be cancer. That has a downside, of course. Much of the waste in the health system is “frequent flyers” — the old, lonely and depressed, who turn up twice a week, every week, and constitute around 30-50% of some GP lists. They are enabled by bulk billing — and the theory is that even a small upfront payment causes a significant downturn in that traffic.
But of course it also means that some people — the deserving and undeserving poor alike — will simply not be able to see a doctor when they need to. Seven dollars doesn’t sound much — but of course many people on benefits, especially those with families, simply have no money at all in the last few days of a benefit cheque fortnight. When no money is required, the doctor can still be visited. The difference between zero and $7 is more significant than the difference between $7 and $30-$40-$50 for those who most require the universality.
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